The recent announcement by the Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan flanked by our beaming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, that Australia had, at least for the moment, escaped going into recession was greeted in some quarters with hysteria.

A considerable number of political, business and economic commentators doubt the wisdom of the much reported statement, saying it was far too premature. They may have a point given the fluctuation of data coming about economy. The truth is we are all flaying our arms in the air searching for that 64,000 dollar answer.

Taking a wider perspective it tells us much about today’s society and how we constantly clamour for instant answers to the most complex of problems. Sadly as we now know, solving this particular conundrum cannot be consigned to the quick fix basket. We need to consider major structural adjustments if we are to learn anything from this fiasco.

Parallel to our current predicament there is the issue of attracting and retaining motivated, engaged and productive people. Reported surveys and reports highlight significant warning signs, the danger being that we will not address the problems until we are sure the recession has passed and once again need to recruit skilled people. Unfortunately this is another example of short term strategic thinking which plagues our country, certain to rebound upon us in the future.

In the past decade like wild animals we have gorged from the carcass of growth, from the perceived success of our economies. Companies and their bottom line profits, consumers with their new plasma televisions, we have all indulged. The feasting did not end there. The craving for further nourishment knew no bounds. Each benchmark higher than the last, until the beast was stripped bare and we were up to our neck in debt.

To blame our human relations environment solely on the recession is, in my opinion, a smokescreen, doing us no credit as in denial we refuse to face reality. Employer/employee relations have been on a downward spiral for years due to a number of micro and macro environmental factors. We have, in the main, been slow to react, trapped like rabbits in headlights.

So what has been the result from the actions of both companies and individuals during this period?

Competiveness has increased during the period, requiring organisations to be leaner with decreased workforces. CEOs and managers thrust in to situations outside their expertise. Increased conflict, unprecedented change and limited investment in training all during a period of exceptional growth and profits. Add to this the loss of jobs from the recession and we create a merry go round which is difficult to stop, placing further burden on the management of our organisations.

Employees have played their part, naturally, staking claims for their respective piece of the pie. Some employees having unrealistic expectations of receiving benefits on a scale akin to the perceived utopia of the Google workplace, a magical world of restaurants, and recreation rooms all in a stress free environment! The average SME has not the remotest possibility to match every demand or whim.

Increasing absenteeism, stress related complaints, counselors for broken relationships and less perceived leisure time indicate, that for some, the workplace has turned into a nightmare. Trends tell us many are so disillusioned they are now electing to choose, where possible, a less stressful life. With some choosing part time work over full time work, leaving a potential void of skills required in crucial disciplines. In the month of May the amount of full time jobs lost was 26,500. This was almost cancelled out by the creation of part time jobs (26,000).

I hear some say “The crippling recession will fix this” and maybe so. However, this wave of fear and disillusionment currently gripping incumbent workers will not last as the current economic climate improves. We will again, be searching for ways to rebuild and grow our companies as workers migrate to an organisation that meets their perceived needs and appears more closely aligned to their values. We will also see a high number skilled people leaving the workforce permanently, such as the Baby Boomers.

With strong evidence of the erosion of trust and loyalty existing between employer and employee dropping to an all time low, relationships have become openly adversarial with enormous gaps appearing in employee engagement and lower recorded productivity. There has been a propensity of businesses to proclaim, through different channels, “We believe in our people.” Maybe it would be poignant to pose the question at this juncture “Do your people believe in you?” My guess, on the whole, would be a resounding no! There are, of course, many organisations which have established great cultures which we could learn from and champion.

You may ask how this author can lay claim to the above, simple my business provides the opportunity to converse with a wide range of employers and employees; the angst and frustration of our working population is palpable!

It is clear we need to start tackling the issues even in the depths of our current tribulations. As Jack Welch, the ex CEO of GE in a recent interview commented “We have to learn to eat and dream at the same time.” Economic, social and generational change will force us to the table whether we like it or not. As many have uttered, change will happen, it is just a matter of time.

An answer to the challenges now unfolding, in my opinion, is relatively unsophisticated. I have worked with and seen CEOs and business owners who have created values based culture and managed by developing mutually respectful relationships as distinct from an outdated master/servant model. They have created extraordinary results across their businesses. Perhaps, for some, hard to swallow but determination and resilience in doing so wins every time; remembering the words of Charlie Chaplin ‘”Words are cheap” this is about commitment and action.

Let’s not delude ourselves, resistance to change in some quarters is probable as the status quo is slavishly maintained. Companies and individuals unable to adapt to change will form the basis of case studies read by business graduates of how not to grow and sustain a successful company.

When we sit down and strategise, we talk about sales, markets, finance, operations. How many SMEs talk about their people? I recommend that we devise a realistic and affordable people plan.

A People Plan

A plan which is built around attracting the right people, engaging new and existing personnel, assisting them to grow both professionally and personally by mentoring. This plan engenders consultation at all levels, encouraging employees’ input and ideas. It seeks to embrace innovation: new methods and technology to increase efficiencies and improve the working environment.

Adoption of a charter which seeks to impose fair and realistic responsibilities for all employees and contains a degree of accountability at all levels, acting as a document used for ongoing review.

The objective is to establish a strong meaningful culture with true values.

… and some closing thoughts.

Upon a recent visit to the USA I was truly heartened, even amongst the carnage of this crisis, that people were talking optimistically about the future with a determination to rid themselves of the cloak of depression they were enduring. With similar optimism adopted in Australia and turned to action maybe the “The New Deal” of which the ex USA President Franklin D Roosevelt spoke so many years ago and has strong similarities to our circumstances today can become a reality within our companies.